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Post Indonesia Quake: Conditionally Freed Inmates Return To Prison


The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia now stands at more than 2,000. Thousands more are said to be missing. And the government announced that its search for victims ends tomorrow. Meanwhile, the quake had a serious impact on one prison near the epicenter. Some inmates torched the prison in the aftermath. Others walked out. But now some of those prisoners have started returning to their old jailhouse. Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: It's not every day you see freed prisoners walk back into the arms of their jailers. But about 80 inmates from the Donggala district prison did just that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Indonesian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: They assemble in rows on the patchy grass on the prison grounds and count off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Indonesian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: Donggala lies closest to the epicenter of the earthquake and where the shaking was the most violent. Rattled prisoners rioted to get out.

SAFI-UDDIN: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: Over the din of the generator, prison head Safi-Uddin (ph) says as tensions escalated, he pleaded for patience. But he says a band of inmates could not be controlled.

SAFI-UDDIN: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: "First one cell block was torched. Then prisoners set fire to the football field out back. Some were wearing ninja masks and shouting to attack the prison officers," Safi-Uddin says. "The inmates devolved into anarchy," he says. And he made the decision to open the door and let them out rather than have all sorts of casualties, among them, the officers.

Was that a tough decision?

SAFI-UDDIN: (Through interpreter) It was a tough decision. But I have to make that call because I want to save, also, my officers.

MCCARTHY: Safi-Uddin says the escapees were motivated mostly out of worry for their families and rumors that spread that inmates at other prisons had already been released to check on their loved ones. The day after the fire, Safi-Uddin addressed the 260 prisoners who remained.

SAFI-UDDIN: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: He said he cried. The prisoners cried. He told them that they had made the prison uninhabitable and said they could all leave on the condition that they come back. They must regularly report on their status. About a quarter of the prisoners checks back every other day, awaiting assignment to another prison.

SAFI-UDDIN: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: Addressing them, Safi-Uddin says, "are you ready to be transferred?"

SAFI-UDDIN: (Speaking Indonesian).

UNIDENTIFIED INMATES: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: The inmates shout their response, "ready." The warden is part preacher, part tough-love coach. "Encourage your fellow inmates to turn themselves in," he says. "Serve your sentence and live out your life without worry," he exhorts. The Donggala high court judge is on hand with a sterner message. "Don't think if you run, you can hide," he warns.

Donggala is a medium security prison. There are no murderers or rapists here. These morning assemblies are casual, with prison guards standing around swapping cigarettes with the returning inmates, who have been convicted of petty corruption, stealing, abusive behavior. Mohammad Taris, a stocky 49-year-old, was the village chief when he falsified receipts for things like kindergarten toys.

MOHAMMAD TARIS: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: He has checked in with his family and is determined to serve out the remaining seven months of his sentence. "I want to obey the law with a clear conscience," he says. "Without pressure from anyone, I will report here." One female prisoner, Lili Setioningsih, was convicted of stealing from her school. The 37-year-old mother tells us her house is gone, and her children have been moved to her parents far away.

LILI SETIONINGSIH: (Speaking Indonesian).

MCCARTHY: She's appealed to the warden to ease her, quote, "trauma." How, I ask. "Find a prison where I can serve out my time closer to my children," she says. The warden is listening to our conversation, leans in and quietly assures her it will be done. A fresh start appears to be in the making. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Donggala, Indonesia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.

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